Ol' Man River

Sometimes first impressions are wrong. Especially when it comes to stage musicals. It's often hard to separate the strengths and weaknesses of the material from the production. Musicals are often very delicate creatures -- even the rowdy ones -- and one weak actor or a weak director can bring the whole show down. Very few shows are foolproof. But it's also hard sometimes when the most famous film version of a show really sucks...

I was watching Show Boat again the other night. Not that awful, maudlin, shitty 1950s MGM version, but the 1936 film. For anyone who thinks they hate Show Boat, it may be because most people do it very badly, usually because they're imitating the shallow, Technicolor 1951 Show Boat.

The 1936 film version (available on DVD at long last), features some of the original 1927 cast, some of the original London cast (including Paul Robeson, for whom the role of Joe was written), and a screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein, based on his own stage script. From everything I've read, I think this version is really close to what the original stage show was like. What sets this film apart from the MGM confection is honesty and balls. Like the stage show, the '36 film is about surviving the substantial obstacles life constantly throws at us, while the '51 film is about pretty costumes, lush orchestrations, and romantic widescreen close-ups. You can see the problem.

Sure, some of the acting in the older film is a bit excessive for modern tastes -- remember that in 1936 they weren't all that far away from the big miming style of the silent era -- but it's still a lot more honest than the glossy, icky acting in the later film. Also, the 50s version was much more skittish about the story's racial content, and that took most of the bite out of the story.

MGM even got the boat itself wrong. Show boats never traveled on their own power; there was always a smaller boat pushing the barge that held the show boat. The '36 movie got that right; the '51 didn't.

(BTW, I've been told for years that St. Louis' late, lamented Goldenrod Showboat was the actual boat Edna Ferber based her novel on; but I've recently been told by an historian that it's not true.)

What struck me most while watching the 1936 film again, was the character of Joe, the show's conscience, a kind of Greek chorus, a very zen-like everyman-philosopher. More than any Joe I've seen on stage, Robeson played him very happy, contented, easy-going. Not at all lazy or stupid, just very zen. Even when Queenie's bitching at him about chores and such, Joe always has this easy smile on his face. Perhaps because of his obvious outsider status, he understands Life in a more profound way than the other characters can. Joe is the Wise Wizard of Magnolia's hero myth, Show Boat's equivalent of Ben Kenobi, Glinda, and Linus. How striking it is for that period that a black man takes on that role!

The only time we see Joe's mood darken is when he sings, "Ol' Man River," which acts as a thematic spine for the entire show. But I realize now, that's not a song about the river just because they all live on the river. It's about the Mississippi River as the Tao.

According to Wikipedia:
Tao or Dao (/taʊ/, /daʊ/) is a Chinese word meaning 'way', 'path', 'route', or sometimes more loosely, 'doctrine' or 'principle'. Within the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion, Tao is a metaphysical concept originating with Laozi that gave rise to a religion and philosophy referred to in English with the single term Taoism. The concept of Tao was later adopted in Confucianism, Chán and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general. Within these contexts Tao signifies the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe. In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a 'name' for a 'thing' but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe. Tao is thus "eternally nameless” and to be distinguished from the countless 'named' things which are considered to be its manifestations. In Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism, the object of spiritual practice is to 'become one with the tao' or to harmonize one's will with Nature in order to achieve 'effortless action.'
In all its uses, Tao is considered to have ineffable qualities that prevent it from being defined or expressed in words. It can, however, be known or experienced, and its principles (which can be discerned by observing Nature) can be followed or practiced. Much of East Asian philosophical writing focuses on the value of adhering to the principles of Tao and the various consequences of failing to do so. In Confucianism and religious forms of Taoism these are often explicitly moral/ethical arguments about proper behavior, while Buddhism and more philosophical forms of Taoism usually refer to the natural and mercurial outcomes of action (comparable to karma). Tao is intrinsically related to the concepts yin and yang, where every action creates counter-actions as unavoidable movements within manifestations of the Tao, and proper practice variously involves accepting, conforming to, or working with these natural developments. The concept of Tao differs from conventional (western) ontology : it is an active and holistic conception of Nature, rather than a static, atomistic one.

That's what "Ol Man River" is talking about. Joe would probably not understand the two paragraphs above, but he clearly understands the Tao.

I'll quote the first section of the song (forgive the semi-racist "dialect"):
Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi,
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be.
What does he care if de world's got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain't free?
Ol' man river, dat ol' man river,
He mus' know sumpin', but don't say nuthin'.
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don' plant taters, he don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants' em is soon forgotten.
But ol' man river,
He jes' keeps rollin' along.
You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an' wracked wid pain;
Tote dat barge! Lif' dat bale!
Git a little drunk an' you lands in jail.
Ah gits weary an' sick of tryin';
Ah'm tired of livin' an' skeered of dyin'.
But ol' man river,
He jes' keeps rolling' along.

Just stay on the road, Joe is saying -- or it is the river saying it? Take whatever comes as it comes. The river -- life, fate, whatever -- plays no favorites and answers no prayers. Or as Spelling Bee puts it, "Life is random and unfair." The idea here is that we could all learn something from Ol' Man River, to be in harmony with the world instead of struggling against it, to go with the flow, accept the path as it is. This is a lesson Magnolia will learn the hard way as she navigates through the obstacles of her hero myth.

Joe has another song, written for the 1936 film, which goes even further in making him the story's zen master:

My point in all this?

I guess only that you can't always judge the older shows by the bland productions they're often given. Yes, many of the old shows are dusty and irrelevant today, but a few of them say something still worth saying. Is Show Boat one of those? Hard to say. Show Boat is still hopelessly old-fashioned, even if its commentary on race may still be relevant. Hal Prince's 1994 revival brought the show successfully into the modern era, but not without some cutting and reshaping.

I always hated Show Boat as a kid, but I think it was the third time I saw it at The Muny that changed my mind, that did the show justice with serious, subtle acting, great pacing, and less reverence. The revival at the Papermill Playhouse wasn't amazing, but it did reinforce my opinion that it's a strong show, only occasionally done well. Prince's revival was a rewrite, no question, but it left much of the show intact, and it really worked for me. And then I saw the 1936 film (at the time, still only on VHS), and got a glimpse into what this show was originally -- and I really like it.

I'm in the middle of Edna Ferber's original novel right now, which is really fun, and I've also started a great new book called Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, by Washington University professor Todd Decker.

Whether or not it's a show you're dying to see (or see again), it's worth noting that there's a lot more there than many people might see. And that's worth pointing out. And if you're curious, check out the 1936 film. I think you'll be surprised by how much you like it.

Long Live the Musical!